Is house building really at the lowest level since the 1920s?

Felix Shaw

An article in today’s Huffington Post makes the bold claim that house building in the UK is at the lowest peacetime level since the 1920s. If you had a sense of déjà vu reading that headline, you’re not alone; a quick google reveals the claim has popped up in various sources since 2008. House building figures have fluctuated wildly in the last 10 years so why do we keep seeing this same headline? Is house building really at the lowest level since the 1920s?

As usual, the truth isn’t as simple as the headlines. The Conservatives have long used the figure as a line of defence whenever their record on house building is challenged, claiming that the last Labour Government presided over historically low house building figures which the Conservatives have since improved on. This is technically true, the figures for 2009, the last full year of Labour government, show that only 86,000 new homes were completed, the lowest annual peacetime figure since 1923. However 2009 was a somewhat exceptional year, with the UK in the midst of a severe recession and global financial crisis.

So does the headline in today’s Huffington Post mean house building has slipped below even 2009 figures? No, ONS figures for 2016 show 140,660 new homes completed. Nowhere near the historic low of 1923.

The article seems to be trying to balance the unfairness of judging Labour/Brown on the results of one exceptional year by looking at average figures per year over the course of a government. Using this method, the Blair/Brown governments fair better than the Cameron/May governments, with a figure of 154,591 new homes per year between 1997-2009 compared to 127,001 for 2010-2016. This figure of 127,001 homes per year on average, is the lowest for a government since Stanley Baldwin’s only full year in office during the 1922-24 term. However, all polls point towards the Conservatives being in power until 2022 at least, and that average figure could change significantly before then.

It’s impossible to say for certain whether house building is currently at its lowest level since the 1920s. What is certain though, is that it’s nowhere near as high as it needs to be, especially during a period where we should be reaping the rewards of a ‘strong and stable’ economy.

With the right leadership, the new Metro Mayors, elected last week, have the potential to transform housing delivery within their respective territories. The precise terms of each Devolution Deal are different, but most come with a combination of strategic planning responsibilities, compulsory purchase powers, development corporations and housing investment funds.

In the West Midlands, for example, Andy Street’s manifesto recognised the need to deliver 165,000 new homes by 2030. At the same time, however, his pledge to protect the Green Belt was a huge factor in driving differential turnout in Conservative-supporting Solihull. 

Balancing these competing priorities – so we really can deliver more houses in future years than we have in the recent past – will be a major challenge. Not just for Metro Mayors, but also for the new Conservative Government (assuming that’s what we will have on June 9), many of whose likely MPs are currently out campaigning hard on the basis that they’ll object to new developments and protect the Green Belt.